Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Fat alligators in Florida

Andrew Ellicott, one of the most important early surveyors in the United States, was born 270 years ago today. He helped survey borders with Canada and with the Spanish territories, worked on the boundaries of the District of Columbia, and completed the plan for Washington D.C. Unpublished diaries kept by Ellicott on some survey expeditions have been used by biographers, but there is one diary he published himself, concerning his work in ‘determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty in America’. It is full of well-observed notes on the land he’s passing through, its people, soils, rivers, minerals, and animals, not least the alligators.

Ellicott was born on 24 January 1754 in Buckingham Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the first child in what would be a large Quaker family. His father, a miller and clockmaker, together with his two brothers, purchased land on the Patapsco River and set up a new milling business there, founding the town of Ellicott’s Mills in 1772. Some three years later Andrew married Sarah Brown and they had nine children that survived childhood. He enlisted as a commissioned officer in the Elk Ridge Battalion of the Maryland militia during the American War of Independence, and rose to the rank of major.

After the war, Ellicott returned home to Ellicott’s Mills until he was appointed, in 1784, to the group tasked with extending the survey of the Mason-Dixon line (this had operated from 1763 tasked with resolving a border dispute between British colonies in Colonial America, but had been stalled since 1767). During the survey, he worked alongside the scientist David Rittenhouse and the educator and bishop James Madison. In 1785, the Ellicotts moved to Baltimore, where Andrew taught mathematics at the Academy of Baltimore. The following year he was elected to the legislature, and was called upon to survey and define the western border of Pennsylvania. This so-called Ellicott Line later became the principal meridian for the surveys of the Northwest Territory.

When Ellicott was subsequently appointed to lead other surveys in Pennsylvania, the family moved again in 1789 to Philadelphia. By recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, he was appointed by the new government under George Washington to survey the lands between Lake Erie and Pennsylvania to determine the border between Western New York and U.S. territory, resulting in the Erie Triangle. This survey, during which he also made the first topographical study of the Niagara River including the Niagara Falls, did much to enhance his reputation as a surveyor.

From 1791 to 1792, Ellicott surveyed the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, which would become the District of Columbia in 1801. His team placed forty boundary stones a mile or so apart, many of which remain today. At the same time, he worked on surveying the future city of Washington, a project that brought much conflict with the French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Further major projects followed for Ellicott, planning of the city of Erie, and working with the commission that was surveying the borders, negotiated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo, between the Spanish territories in Florida and the United States.

This latter work took four years, after which the John Adam’s government refused to pay Ellicott, and refused him access to the maps he had submitted, leaving him in serious financial trouble. It took until 1803 for the maps to be released to him, under Thomas Jefferson’s administration, which also offered Ellicott the post of Surveyor Journal. He turned it down, accepting instead a quieter life as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Land Office, and moving with his family to live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Also in 1803, Jefferson engaged Ellicott to teach Meriwether Lewis, who would later be one of the leaders of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (see White bear, drunk Indians).

After being fired by a new administration in Pennsylvania, Ellicott returned to private practice, and was hired to re-survey the border between Georgia and North Caroline. This job also ended acrimoniously, without his fees being paid, and the family moved to West Point where Ellicott worked as a professor of mathematics at the military academy. After one last significant survey, concerning the western border between Canada and the US in 1817, Ellicott died in 1820. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or from biographies freely available at Internet Archive, such as Andrew Ellicott - His Life and Letters by Catharine Van Cortlandt Mathews.

Ellicott was accustomed to keeping a diary on his survey expeditions, at least from the mid-1780s. Mathews says this: ‘Records of his earlier surveys were not kept, and it is not until ten years after his marriage that we have the first of those letters and diaries which tell the story of his life so simply and so unassumingly that the biographer cannot do better than to let them speak for him. They form a clear and fascinating picture of the men and manners, the country and the State of Andrew Ellicott’s day, while through even the briefest of them, shines out the character of the man himself, in all its simplicity, integrity, and kindliness. Between the lines of almost every scrap of manuscript he has left behind him, may be traced the quiet, sensible courage, the quick and keen observation of men and things, the tremendous capacity for hard work, and the complete indifference to the lures of wealth or fame, which seem to have been recognized by all who came in contact with him as the most characteristic qualities of the man.’

In her biography (published in 1908), Mathews quotes from various of Ellicott’s unpublished diaries. The only diary of Ellicott’s that appeared in his own lifetime was the one he kept in the late 1790s while surveying the border between the US and the Spanish territories. He was only able to publish this, finally, in 1803, when allowed access to the survey’s maps. The book, which is freely available at Internet Archive has an impressive title:

The Journal of Andrew Ellicott: late commissioner on behalf of the United States during part of the year 1796, the years 1797, 1798, 1799, and part of the year 1800: for determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty in America, containing occasional remarks on the situation, soil, rivers, natural productions, and diseases of the different countries on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Gulf of Mexico, with six maps comprehending the Ohio, the Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, the whole of West Florida, and part of East Florida; to which is added an appendix, containing all the astronomical observations made use of for determining the boundary on a large scale, likewise a great number of Thermometrical Observations made at different times and places.

Here are several extracts.

6 December 1797
‘Spent at work upon our boats. Squalls of snow all day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 28°.’

7 December 1797
‘Finished repairing our boats. Cloudy great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 18° to 26°.’

8 December 1797
‘Detained till evening by our commissary, who was employed in procuring provision. Set off about sun down.’

The town of Louis Ville stands a short distance above the rapids on the east side of the river. The situation is handsome, but said to be unhealthy. The town has improved but little for some years past. The rapids are occasioned by the water falling from one horizontal stratum of lime-stone, to another; in some places the fall is perpendicular, but the main body of the water when the river is low, runs along a channel of a tolerably regular slope, which has been through length of time worn in the rock. In the spring when the river is full, the rapids are scarcely perceptible, and boats descend without difficulty or danger. Thermometer rose from 22° to 29°.’

9 December 1797
‘Floated all night. Stopped in the morning to cook some victuals, and then proceeded on till sunset and encamped.  Thermometer rose from 27° to 35°, Water in the river 53°.’

10 December 1797
‘Left the shore at sunrise. About nine o’clock in the morning discovered a Kentucky boat fast upon a log, and upon examination found that it was deserted, and suspected that the crew were on shore in distress, which we soon found to be the case. The crew consisted of several men, women, and children, who left the boat two days before in a small canoe when they found their strength insufficient to get her off. They were without any shelter, to defend them from the inclemency of the weather, and it was then snowing very fast. We spent two hours in getting the boat off, and taking it to the shore, where we received the thanks of the unfortunate crew, and left them to pursue their journey.

Having a desire to determine the geographical position of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and the large store boat not being calculated for expedition, I left her with directions to follow with all possible despatch, and pushed on myself for the mouth of the river. Stopped at sun down, to give our men time to cook some victuals: set off at eight o’clock in the evening, and proceeded down the river against a strong head wind till almost midnight, when it became so violent that we had to put to shore. Snow great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 28°. Water in the river 33°.’

11 Decmber 1797
‘Left the shore at daylight, and worked against a strong head wind till sunset, then went on shore to dress some victuals. Cloudy great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 23° to 29°. Left the shore at eight o’clock in the evening, and worked all night against a strong head wind.’

15 December 1797
‘Much ice in the river. Stopped at an Indian camp, and procured some meat. Dined at the great cave. This cave may be considered as one of the greatest natural curiosities on the river, and I have constantly lamented that I could not spare time to make a drawing of it, and take its dimensions. It is situated on the west side of the river. The entrance is large and spacious, and remarkably uniform, the dome is elliptical, and the uniformity continues to its termination in the hill.

Stopped about sunset to take in some wood. Set off in half an hour and floated all night. Cloudy part of the day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 41°.’

16 December 1797
‘At eight o’clock in the morning, one of our boats unfortunately ran on the roots of a tree, which were under water, and bilged. We spent till near one o’clock in the afternoon in repairing her, and then proceeded down the river till about sunset and encamped. The weather that day was very pleasant. Thermometer rose from 35° to 51°. Passed Cumberland river at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.’

19 December 1797
‘Set up the clock, and prepared to make some astronomical observations for the purpose of determining the latitude and longitude of the confluence of those great, and important rivers: for those, and the thermometrical observations made at this place, see the Appendix.

The map of the Ohio river which accompanies this work, is laid down from the best materials I could procure, a number of the latitudes between Pittsburgh and the rapids, were taken by myself: from thence down to the Mississippi, the latest charts have been used, except in a few places which have been corrected by my friend Don Jon Joaquin de Ferrer, an ingenious Spanish astronomer. The map is divided into two parts, that it may not be too large to fold in a quarto volume, and at the same time of such a size, as to shew distinctly the errors that may hereafter be discovered, and serve as a basis for future corrections.

The Ohio river, is formed by the junction of the Allegany and Monongahela rivers, at Pittsburgh, which name it retains till it falls into the Mississippi. It may not be improper here to observe, that all the Indians residing on the Allegany, ever since my acquaintance with the western country, have called that branch, as well as the main river, the Ohio, and appeared to know it by no other name.

The Ohio is certainly one of the finest rivers within the United States, whether considered as to magnitude, the great extent of its course, or the outlet it affords to an immense and fertile country rapidly filling with inhabitants.

The bottom and sides of the river are stony, from Pittsburgh down to the low country, which is generally supposed to be about eight hundred miles. The strata of stone are horizontally disposed, and principally consist of either freestone, or limestone. This horizontal disposition of the strata of stone, is observable through a very large extent of the United States. I have traced it from Oswego, up Lakes Ontario and Erie, with all the waters falling into them, and through all the western parts of Pennsylvania, and down the Ohio, wherever hills or mountains are to be seen.

The flat, or bottom lands on the Ohio, are not surpassed by any in the United States for fertility; but in many places they are small, and inconsiderable; being limited by hills or mountains, on one side, and the river on the other. A large proportion of the hills, and mountains, are unfit for agricultural purposes, being either too steep, or faced with rocks. The hills and mountains on the east side of the river, generally increase in magnitude, till they unite with the great ridge, commonly called the Allegany: but on the west side they decrease, till the country becomes almost a dead level.

The country produces all the immediate necessaries, of life in abundance, and far beyond the present consumption of the inhabitants; the residue, with many other articles, such as hemp, cordage, hard-ware, some glass, whisky, apples, cider, and salted provisions, are annually carried down the river to New Orleans, where they find a ready market. Mines of pit coal (lithanthrax), are not only abundant, but inexhaustible from Pittsburgh many miles down the river.

The inhabitants of no part of the United States are so much interested in establishing manufactories, as of this. They possess the raw materials, and can export their produce with ease, but their imports are attended with difficulty, great risk, and expense. And so long as they receive neither bounties, nor uncommon prices for their articles of exportation, and depend upon the Atlantic states for their supplies of European manufactures, the balance of trade will constantly be against them, and draw off that money, which should be applied to the improvement of the country, and the payment of their taxes. To this source, may in some degree be traced, the character the inhabitants have too generally had bestowed upon them of insurgents, and disorganizers; to a few individuals these epithets may be applied, but not to the body of the people. In order to judge fairly on this question, it will be necessary to take into view the local situation of the inhabitants. In the Atlantic states every article however minute, if a necessary of life, will not only find a ready market, but command cash. On the Ohio, and its waters, almost the only article, which has heretofore found a ready market at home, and would command cash, was their own distilled spirits. The taxing of this article would therefore be but little different from taxing every article in the Atlantic states, which commanded cash. Such a tax as the latter, I am inclined to believe, would be collected with difficulty, and probably with the same propriety, give the same turbulent character to a great majority of the nation.

I am far from justifying any opposition by force, to the execution of laws constitutionally enacted, they must either expire, or be constitutionally repealed; a contrary proceeding must terminate in the destruction of all order, and regular government, and leave the nation in a state of nature: but at the same time, it is a duty incumbent on the legislature, to attend to the local situations of the several constituent, or component parts of the union, and not pass laws, which are feebly felt in one part, and be oppressive in another. That some turbulent persons are to be met with on our frontiers, every person possessed of understanding and reflection, must be sensible, will be the case so long as we have a frontier, and men are able to fly from justice, or their creditors; but there are few settlements so unfortunate as to merit a general bad character from this class of inhabitants.

The people who reside on the Ohio and its waters, are brave, enterprising, and warlike, which will generally be found the strongest characteristical marks of the inhabitants of all our new settlements. It arises from their situation; being constantly in danger from the Indians, they are habituated to alarms, and acts of bravery become a duty they owe to themselves, and to their friends. But this bravery, too frequently when not checked by education, and a correct mode of thinking, degenerates into ferocity.

Vessels proper for the West India trade, may be advantageously built on the Ohio, and taken with a cargo every annual rise of the waters down to New Orleans, or out to the islands. The experiment has already been made, and attended with success.

The climate on the Ohio, does not appear to be inferior to that of any part of the union. The inhabitants enjoy as much health, as they do on any of the large rivers in the Atlantic states. At Pittsburgh, and for a considerable distance down the river, bilious complaints are scarcely known; but they are frequent at Cincinnati, and still more so at Louisville near the rapids.’

7 February 1800
‘We began our observatory, and sent a party to examine whether there was any communication between the river and Okefonoke Swamp, which after our arrival at St. Mary’s to our surprise, we found doubtful. The same day a number of canoes were sent down to the vessel to bring up some of our instruments and other articles, we were under the necessity of leaving behind.

On the 12th the instruments and other articles arrived, and a course of observations was began as soon as the weather permitted. In the evening the party that was sent to explore the source of the river, or its communication with the Okefonoke Swamp returned; but without making any satisfactory discovery, and the day following another party was despatched on the same business.

This being the season that the Alligators, or American Crocodiles were beginning to crawl out of the mud and bask in the sun, it was a favourable time to take them, both on account of their torpid state, and to examine the truth of the report of their swallowing pine knots in the fall of the year to serve them, (on account of their difficult digestion,) during the term of their torpor, which is probably about three months. For this purpose two Alligators of about eight or nine feet in length were taken and opened, and in the stomach of each was found several pine and other knots, pieces of bark, and in one of them some charcoal; but exclusive of such indigestible matter, the stomachs of both were empty. So far the report appears to be founded in fact: but whether these substances were swallowed on account of their tedious digestion, and therefore proper during the time those animals lay in the mud, or to prevent a collapse of the coats of the stomach, or by accident owing to their voracious manner of devouring their food, is difficult to determine.

The Alligator has been so often, and so well described, and those descriptions so well known, that other attempts have become unnecessary. It may nevertheless be proper to remark, that so far as the human species are concerned, the Alligators appear much less dangerous, than has generally been supposed, particularly by those unacquainted with them. And I do not recollect meeting with but one well authenticated fact of any of the human species being injured by them in that country, (where they are very numerous,) and that was a negro near New Orleans, who while standing in the water sawing a piece of timber, had one of his legs dangerously wounded by one of them. My opinion on this subject is founded on my own experience. I have frequently been a witness to Indians, including men, women and children, bathing in rivers and ponds, where those animals are extremely numerous, without any apparent dread or caution: the same practice was also pursued by myself and people, without caution, and without injury.

Some of the Alligators we killed were very fat, and would doubtless have yielded a considerable quantity of oil, which is probably almost the only use that will ever be made of them; however their tails are frequently eaten by the Indians and negroes, and Mr. Bowles informed me that he thought them one of the greatest of delicacies.

The Alligators appear to abound plentifully in musk, the smell of which is sometimes perceptible to a considerable distance, when they are wounded or killed; but whether the musk is contained in a receptacle for that purpose, and secreted by a particular gland or glands, or generally diffused through the system appears somewhat uncertain: and I confess their appearance was so disagreeable and offensive to me, that I felt no inclination to undertake the dissection of one of them.

The second party which had been sent to ascertain the connexion (if any,) between the river St. Mary’s and the Okefonoke Swamp returned on the 17th, having discovered the communication, and the day following a traverse was began, to connect the observatory with that part of the Swamp from whence the water issued, in order to determine its true geographical position.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 24 January 2014.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Luminous shards

Edvard Munch, one of Norway’s most famous sons, and the painter of one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Scream, died 80 years ago today. His so-called ‘private journals’ were published a decade or so ago by the University of Wisconsin Press. The book's editor has described the text as full of ‘luminous shards’ but, nevertheless, this work is not a journal/diary but a book of poetry. 

Munch was born in 1863, in Loten, Norway, though the family soon moved to Oslo (then called Christiania and renamed to Kristiania in 1877). His childhood was much affected by the ill health of those around him: his mother died from tuberculosis when he was just five, and some years later his sister also died from the same disease; moreover his father, a doctor, suffered from mental illness. 

Munch enrolled in a technical college in 1879 to study engineering but soon left to take up painting. From 1881, he studied at the Royal School of Art and Design, where he was exposed to a bohemian lifestyle, a stark contrast to his Lutheran upbringing. In 1883, he took part in his first public exhibition. According to Wikipedia, a full-length portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, a notorious bohemian-about-town, earned some scathing criticism: ‘It is impressionism carried to the extreme. It is a travesty of art.’

During visits to Paris in the late 1880s, he was exposed to Post-Impressionism styles; and in the 1890s he involved himself with the Symbolist movement in Berlin, often spending his winters in the city. His most famous painting - The Scream - is said to encapsulate the existential angst and despair that were central to his oeuvre. Throughout his life, he faced numerous personal challenges, including alcoholism and, in 1908, a nervous breakdown, which led him to seek therapy and adopt a more balanced lifestyle. 

Munch’s later years were marked by increasing recognition and numerous exhibitions, particularly in Germany, where he had a significant impact on the development of German Expressionism. Although he had several relationships with women, none seems to have lasted more than a few years. He died on 23 January 1944, leaving more than 20,000 works to the City of Oslo. See Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the official Munch website for more information.

There are tantalising references (in biographies) to diaries kept by Munch, especially when he was younger - see, for example, Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies by Arne Eggum (available to view at Internet Archive). However, the only published diary/journal that I can find is The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth, as edited and translated by J. Gill Holland (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). This can be sampled at Googlebooks.

The blurb gives some information about the book’s text: ‘. . . Munch considered himself a writer as well as a painter. [In Paris and Berlin . . .] he evolved a highly personal style in paintings and works on paper. And in diaries that he kept for decades, he also experimented with reminiscence, fiction, prose portraits, philosophical speculations, and surrealism. [. . .] The journal entries in this volume span the period from the 1880s, when Munch was in his twenties, until the 1930s, reflecting the changes in his life and his work. [. . .] Though excerpts from these diaries have been previously published elsewhere, no translation has captured the real passion and poetry of Munch’s voice. This translation lets Munch speak for himself and evokes the primal passion of his diaries.’

And here is a helpful paragraph from Holland’s introduction: ‘What general claims can be made for these pages from Munch’s journals? It is clear that passages in the journals are imaginary. It should also be obvious that a range of moods and tones colors his entries. His journals were for decades a laboratory in which he recorded scenes, visions, stories, and meditations. I have not tried to follow any chronological order in organizing the sections. The entries are seldom dated; Munch’s memory often reached far back into the past. Perhaps these passages should be read not as biographical items strung along a time line but instead like William Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” magical moments to which the English poet returned for four decades but that were never published in his lifetime. Munch’s journal entries “can be appreciated as luminous shards picked from the mountain of colors lying outside the glasscutter’s workshop” ’.

That said, the work is better described as a collection of poetry than a journal, and has no dated entries. Here for example is one famous extract - describing how he came to paint The Scream

One evening I was walking
out on a hilly path
near Kristiania —
with two
comrades. It
was a time when life
had ripped my
soul open.
The sun was going down—had
dipped in flames below the horizon.
It was like
a flaming sword
of blood slicing through
the concave of heaven.
The sky was like
blood — sliced with
strips of fire
— the hills turned
deep blue
the fjord — cut in
cold blue, yellow, and
red colors —

The exploding
bloody red — on
the path and hand railing
—my friends turned
glaring yellow white—
—I felt
a great scream
— and I heard,
yes, a great
scream —
the colors in
nature — broke
the lines of nature
— the lines and colors
vibrated with motion
—these oscillations of life
brought not only
my eye into oscillations,
it brought also my
ears into oscillations —
so I actually heard
a scream—
I painted
the picture Scream then.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

What’s in My Journal

‘Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for Alaska.’
This is part of a poem by the American writer, William Stafford, born 110 years ago today. He is said to have kept a daily journal for 50 years, but the only published extracts available online show the journal to be more a collection of epigrams and political/philosophical thoughts than a personal diary. 

Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on 17 January 1914. During the Depression, his family moved around in search of work, and he contributed by doing odd jobs, often on farms. He studied at the University of Kansas, and was drafted into the armed forces in 1941. However, as a registered conscientious objector, he performed alternative service, forestry and soil conservation, until 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps. While working in California in 1944, he met and married Dorothy Hope Frantz, with whom he later had four children. He received an M.A. also from the University of Kansas in 1947. His thesis - the prose memoir Down In My Heart describing his experience in the forest service camps - was published in 1948.

After moving to Oregon, Stafford taught English at Lewis & Clark College. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He was already 48 when his first major collection of poetry was published, Traveling Through the Dark, which won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published 57 volumes of poetry. His poetry often explored themes of peace, mindfulness, and the human experience. He believed in the power of everyday moments and the importance of observing the world with a keen and empathetic eye. His work is said to be characterised by its clarity, simplicity, and a reverence for the ordinary. He died in 1993. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and the Poetry Foundation.

According to Wikipedia, Stafford kept a daily journal for 50 years. Although these journals do not appear to have been published in their own right some extracts can be found in Every War Has Two Losers edited by Kim Stafford and published by Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, in 2003. This can be borrowed digitally from Internet Archive.

‘In editing this unusual book,’ Kim Stafford says in his forward, ‘I have chosen in many instances to represent my fathers unpublished writing exactly as he penned it in the early morning, alone with his thoughts. The language is sometimes very compact, the thought line intuitive, and the effect both intimate and challenging. The poems are represented as he revised and published them, and most of the interviews he had a chance to review. Some of the Daily Writings, however, were never revised, and they live here with you in their native form. I invite you to read these as they were written: attentive, deliberate, in a spirit of welcome as thoughts come forth.’

Here are several extracts from Stafford’s journal as found in Every War Has Two Losers.

25 November 1970
‘When a war looms, the enemy emerges as wrong and a menace. How long before was it wrong and a menace? What was done then? Should more have been done earlier? Could it have been swayed earlier? Were the aggressive people now among those trying to sway earlier?’ 

1 December 1974
‘Divisions among groups bring forward aggressive leaders, whose function requires of them an emphasizing of positive qualities in their own group, a tolerance of distortion in regard to the “enemy,” a temporary using of means ordinarily frowned upon. War leaders are liars.’

11 October 1978
‘Living traditionally, the country life, we cultivate the ground. We know the seed will produce after its kind. Why then do we sow suspicion and hatred in some places? If we show goodwill, honesty, reliability, industry, thrift, cheer, will these tend to produce those qualities in others around us? And the contrary is true too?

But do we have enemies? Whence came their feelings toward us? Can a serenity view and understand?’

12 July 1981
‘You can’t help noticing these days that right hasn’t prevailed.’

12 September 1981
‘The wind you walk against but do not feel is ignorance. Your foolish face has happiness on one side, but the world pressed on the other.’

And, finally, here is a poem penned by Stafford in 1981

What’s in My Journal

‘Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.’

Saturday, January 6, 2024

I must forget how to write

I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.’ This is John Wieners, an American beat poet born 90 years ago today, writing in his diary aged but 24. He would go on to become part of the poetic renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s. His poetry, some said, brought with it a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experiences.

Wieners was born on 6 January 1934, in Milton, Massachusetts. He studied at Boston College between 1950 and 1954, and then at Black Mountain College under the poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. He worked for a while as a stage manager/actor for the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, and also began to edit the literary magazine Measure.

From 1958 to 1960 Wieners lived in San Francisco. He actively participated in the city’s so-called poetry renaissance, and published The Hotel Wentley Poems. He returned to Boston in 1960, where he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a time. In 1962-1963, he lived in New York with Herbert Huncke, another poet, but again returned to Boston where he published his second book of poems, Ace of Pentacles.

Wieners enrolled in the graduate programme at the University of Buffalo, where he became a teaching fellow. After another period of institutionalisation, he moved to live in Joy Street, Boston, where he would remain; and he became more active politically, particularly against war and in support of the gay movement. In 1975, he published Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike, subtitled Cinema decoupages; verses, abbreviated prose insights, but produced little else after.

Wieners gave one of his last readings in 1999, at the Guggenheim Museum, celebrating an exhibit by the painter Francesco Clemente - the two of them having published Broken Women together. Wieners died in 2002. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, and The Poetry Foundation has this assessment: ‘Wieners’ poetry combines candid accounts of sexual and drug-related experimentation with jazz-influenced improvisation, placing both in a lyrical structure. In [one interview], Wieners stated, “I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.” As Robert Creeley observed, “His poems had nothing else in mind but their own fact.” ’

In an obituary published by The Independent, John Ward summarised Wieners’ influence: ‘[He] was a key figure in the poetic renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s. In his work a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experience co-existed with both a jazz-related aesthetic of improvisation and a more traditional concern with lyric form.’

A few extracts from Wieners’ diaries were published while he was still alive, in 1996, by Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, under the title The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959. It starts with ‘Two Short Histories’ on ‘How This Book Came To Be’.  Lewis Warsh writes: ‘ln 1972, William Corbett and I visited John in his apartment at 44 Joy Street in Boston with the hope of getting poems from him for our new magazine (edited with Lee Harwood), The Boston Eagle. I remember John opening a trunk filled with ledger-sized journals with old-fashioned marble covers. “I’d love to read them someday,” I said, thinking out loud, but Wieners caught the genuine interest in my tone and presented one to me. [. . .]

When I was finished [transcribing] I had 77 manuscript pages, a book. On the inside cover of the ledger there was the title: 707 Scott Street, for Billie Holliday. I published a few pages of the journal in an issue of The World, the literary magazine of the Poetry Project (an issue devoted to autobiographical writing which I was guest-editing); then, for almost twenty years, the transcript of the journal disappeared. It was the interest of the poet Peter Gizzi who had heard that such a journal existed, that made me go searching for it. I never presented John with a finished copy of the transcript, though I do remember visiting him again and returning the original, not that it would have mattered (or so he led me to believe) whether I’d kept it or not.’

And in the other Short History, Fanny Howe writes: ‘In 707 Scott Street [Wieners] writes, “and if I cannot speak in poetry it is because poetry is reality to me, and not the poetry we read, but find revealed in the estates of being around us.” John’s poetry has always been the closest thing possible to a new form of speech, one that narrows the gap between longing and calling. These pages from the fifties live in that “estate” as much as his spoken words to others do now.

Estates of being exist as streets, seasons, people, songs and while the placement of his poetics could be cordoned off by a period in “the limbo of contemporary America that has passed - a poetics that predates post-modern rhetoric and the strange fixation with an Otherness that he would not recognise - his unembittered position as an “unknown” witness of the dispossessed is absolutely present across time.’

The Wikipedia entry on Wieners makes reference to three books, all published posthumously, which also contain extracts from his diaries. Kidnap Notes Next is a 2002 collection of poems and journal entries edited by Jim Dunn in 2002. A Book of Prophecies (2007, Bootstrap Press) contains a manuscript discovered in the Kent State University archive’s collection by poet Michael Carr. It was a journal written by Wieners in 1971, and opens with a poem titled 2007. Thirdly, in 2005, City Lights Books published Stars Seen in Person: selected journals. This can be digitally borrowed from Internet Archive.

Here are several entries from 707 Scott Street thanks to Green Integer (which evolved out of Sun & Moon Press and, for a while, made the book freely available online as a pdf).

8 March 1958
‘The sun shines. Miss Kids is across asleep on the couch. She wakes and says “I dreamt I just put on...” I cant hear the rest. She goes back to sleep. Dana is asleep in the bedroom beside this one where the sun fills three windows. Miss Kids’ dark glasses sound/crack on the floor.

I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.

Last night I dreamed Alan appeared in a hallway where I leaned against a lintel; there were open doors on all sides and he presented me with a doll, his doll, the country one whose dress he ironed 3000 miles away. He was smiling, a great smile and I still see his white teeth and the black beard on his face. She was dressed in black, the doll, and her long thick hair was tied back the way I had left it. He had put it on top of one of those innumerable chests he had around his house. And I take it as a sign that all is well, I am and he is, today with the doll handed between us, he wanted me to have what he named was his. It is only Miss Kids and Dana who have hangovers. I must not let them hang me up.

She awakes again and asks “Is it cloudy outside yet?” I say “No” and an automobile horn busts our ears and the Chinese kids overhead beat and stomp on the floor.

These days shall be my poems, these words what I leave behind as mine, my record up against time. It is all very sad that we have to fight it. Possibly I may come to love time and its taking of my days.

“It well may be, I do not think I would.”

Right now, it is very fine. The cable car track shuttles in right inside the street and they empty the mail-box. A motor-scooter or motorcycle guns its motor and what bright flesh runs on Leavenworth Street. The 80 bus stops. Miss Kids has the Mohawk blanket that we (Dana and I) bought in the Morgan Memorial up to her eyes and her hair, her yellow hair is all over the pillow and her shut eye-lids. The cable car conductor rings the bell twice. It also stops. Only man and time move. And the space we are given to inhabit, so fast it is thru our fingers.

I must learn how not to write. I must watch with my 5 senses.

“the 5 perfections that are the 5 hindrances” and I must nail down those who would, all that would hang me up.

The 80 bus going the other way, to Market Street, sounds its squashed beep, peculiar to San Francisco, where they are afraid any loud noise would start another earthquake. And yet we all go around screaming.

There is not enough sound in the air. Miss Kids and Dana have headaches from last night.

I must stop being wise. Miss Kids wakes and says “Is it late?”

“Almost two.”

“Another day ruined.” She stretches her long wax arms (paraffin) on the mohair couch. “I feel fine now, Kids.” The sun puts gold on her nose. “Kids, they’re after me.” I tell her “Kids, you look like a fucked Alice-in-Wonderland. And your hands are swollen,”

She looks at them. “Dana did it.” ’

18 June 1958
‘Miss Lollipop is full of pain this morning. Her wing bone in the back. Her legs are black and blue. She ran her hands over me showing me where the pain is. We sat up all night listening to jazz and then at dawn, rock and roll. Her history as far as I know it consists of 8 arrests, 4 husbands. Her father was chief of the narcotics bureau in Sacramento. She lives in the Broadway Hotel with an Armenian piano player. She bends her neck as one of her boys rubs his hands into her. She wears a black bra. She does not complain.

Miss Lollipop has one of the most rare diseases known to medical history. A form of low grade bacteria that causes her shape to change every day. One day pregnant and full of gas, the next shapely. As she puts it, “I’ve had a lot of trouble with my insides.” ’

26 July 1958
‘On the road again. America does not change. Nor do we, Olson says. We only reveal more of ourselves. Riding in the car with all the windows open. How can I rise to the events of our lives. I am a shrew and nagging bitch as my mother was. I am filled with doubt and too passive. I go where I am told. Anywhere. Take pleasure in doing what I am told. There is no comfort in Nature or God except for the weak. It is my fellow men that deliver me my life. Otherwise I wrap up in myself like an evening primrose in the sun. Nature is good for analogy. We think we learn lessons from her but she deserts us at the moment of action. That is why we remain savages. Underneath. And our civilization remains a jungle. Live it at night and see.

But traveling on the road to Sausalito, San Francisco then Big Sur, I see how much the earth still surrounds us. Willow Road juts out in my memory. Mission San Rafael Archangel. Redwood Highway. Where man is going now, who knows. The earth no longer need be his home. Maybe this means the end of the old world. And man, on the minutest of planets may and can range thru all of space. To the very frontiers, limits, barriers of outer worlds. Lucky Drive. End construction project. With what frightening speed we move ahead. This must be necessary: Paradise Drive. The children are quieting down now. The witch drives her old Chevrolet, her long black hair blowing out the window.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 January 2014.